Fame and infamy are interchangeable terms

"In a country that doesn't discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.

Christine Blatchford

The wisest story I’ve ever read about a mass school shooting is a work of fiction — no accident, I suspect, for it takes distance to see past the horror of such things, not to mention get around the makeshift shrines and the spoken and printed equivalents of the teddy bears which adorn them.

As mainstream newsrooms around the world geared up the sombre music and reporters lowered voices in order to interview eight-year-olds, so did cyberspace fill up with omgs, fake sites, expressions of sorrow, rumours and ghastly bleatings.

To quote a young man named Ryan Lanza, who may be someone with the bad luck to have the same name as the Ryan Lanza who was first wrongly identified as the latest shooter or who may be the actual brother of gunman Adam Lanza, who complained on Facebook Friday, “So aperently I’m getting spammed bc someone with the same name as me killed some ppl..wtf?”

Either way, this is what passes for social commentary in 2012 — illiterate, petulant, self-referential sludge.

The novel is called “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” written by Lionel Shriver.

It was first published in 2003, four years after Columbine had set the table and laid out the ground rules for all such events thereafter.

The story is told through the eyes of Eva, mother of the teenage killer, Kevin Khatchadourian, who after slaying his father and little sister in the backyard of the family home — with the crossbow his willfully blind and adoring father had given him for Christmas — set off for school and the nine he would slaughter there in the gym.

As the son told the mother during one of their jailhouse chats, this shortly after the arrival to the prison of the newest celebrity killer, a teen who had slit the throats of a pair of elderly neighbours who complained his music was too loud, the boy’s only modest claim to fame was that the police had never found the couple’s entrails.

“Your friend’s precocious,” Eva said, for here she was trying for impassivity in order to get Kevin to engage. “The missing entrails — didn’t you teach me that to get noticed in this business you have to add a twist?”

Perhaps that’s what Adam Lanza was doing at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., simply raising the ante.

By assassinating children so young they could have hurt and offended no one, he was guaranteeing himself some place in the growing annals of school shootings, as compared to workplace massacres, which as Eva says are really just School Shooting Grows Up.

The book is a series of letters, from Eva to her dead husband, Franklin, most of them written after visiting their son in prison.

As the woman who had given birth to a monster, and the only family member he didn’t kill — she was at work — Eva was shunned and loathed by all in their suburb. She absorbed it all, felt she deserved the punishment, savoured it.

The letters trace the strange boy who had always pushed her away, who was so distant, had so few interests, so sardonic and sneakily cruel.

As the phenomenon of such shootings took hold in the U.S. psyche, the Khatchadourians had talked about it at home. The dad once asked Kevin, “Do any of the students at your school ever seem unstable? Does anyone ever talk about guns, or play violent games or like violent movies? Do you think something like this could happen at your school? Are there at least counselors there?”

“All the kids at my school are unstable, Dad,” the son replied. “They play nothing but violent computer games and watch nothing but violent movies. You only go to a counselor to get out of class, and everything you tell her is a crock.

“Anything else?”

I was in Littleton, Colo., 13 years ago. What was almost as horrifying as the carnage — 14 students and a teacher dead, the killers having shot themselves — was the theatre that followed. Students were able to grieve only in public, preferably for the cameras; professionals descended in swarms to help the town mourn; people urged each other to hug their children, as though without the reminder, no one would have thought of it.

Columbine was prophetic in so many ways, and no one has much deviated from the format since. What Eva, in the novel, railed against — “the pleading refrain of why, why, why” — she answered, as best there ever is an answer, a few pages later.

Noting that “Mark David Chapman gets the fan mail that John Lennon can’t,” she says that in a country — I would say world — “that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable. Hence I am no longer amazed by the frequency of public rampages with loaded automatics but by the fact that every ambitious citizen … is not atop a shopping centre looped with refills of ammunition.”

Christine Blatchford is a columnist with Postmedia News.

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